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How Santorum's sweep changes the GOP race (and how it doesn't)

February 08, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at a rally Tuesday night in Denver.
Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at a rally Tuesday night in Denver. (Marc Piscotty / Getty Images )

Mitt Romney and his campaign were bracing for some disappointing results in Tuesday's votes in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. But hardly anyone expected the nominal front runner to go 0-for-3, or for Rick Santorum to run the table.

The question now ahead of an unusual gap between nominating contests is whether last night represented a minor hiccup or a major setback for the former Massachusetts governor's hopes to win the GOP nomination.

Despite the losses, the delegate math is unchanged. The caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado only started the delegate apportionment process in those states. And Missouri's primary was a nonbinding "beauty contest" -- the state GOP opted to hold caucuses next month when the legislature failed to move the primary to March to comply with new rules from both parties.

According to the Republican National Committee, Romney still leads the GOP field with 73 delegates. Gingrich has won 29, Paul 8, Santorum 3, and 30 are unbound. That's exactly where it stood Monday, too.

But looking at the state-by-state results, there are some troubling signs for the Romney team in Boston. For starters, Romney won both of last night's caucus states in his 2008 bid for the GOP nomination, when he was seen as a more conservative alternative to John McCain. And Tuesday's third-place finish in Minnesota was especially embarrassing, both for Romney and his national co-chairman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The kind of person who votes in a meaningless primary or goes to a party caucus in February is the same person a nominee will need this fall volunteering to make phone calls, go door-to-door and rally others to vote in the general election. In other words, the base.

So even as the narrative was that Romney was getting closer to locking up the party's nomination, hundreds of thousands of the party's core supporters turned out and voted for someone else.

That being said, the fundamentals of the Romney campaign are still strong. He's got a decided advantage in fundraising, and a super PAC ready to fuel an air war ahead of Super Tuesday contests. Those resources were notably not deployed this week.

He's got an organization that can wage a multi-front campaign, while rivals Gingrich and Santorum won't even be on the ballot in some states, like delegate-rich Virginia on March 6.

But the timing of this setback for Romney could not be worse. When his lead in South Carolina evaporated, he had 10 days to rebound in Florida, and a chance to double down in the Nevada caucuses.

Now, outside of the lightly attended Maine caucuses that conclude Saturday, there's a full three weeks until the next contests in Arizona and Michigan -- two states that for now still look good for him on paper.

That span includes a gathering of conservative activists in Washington for the Conservative Political Action Conference, where the unease with Romney is sure to be a dominant theme. And there's at least one debate -- a stage that has at times been unkind to the former Massachusetts governor, though he did show more polish and vigor in the most recent two.

"Now we're in a little bit of a no man's land," Santorum told CNN Tuesday night.

The biggest advantage Romney still has is in numbers. Had Santorum not succeeded as he did Tuesday, the pressure would have built for him to get out of the race. Instead, he and Newt Gingrich will still be fighting a two-front war, to establish themselves as the strongest "anti-Romney" and then to take on Romney himself.

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